Japan’s gaming market a world apart

Fantasy sells while violent fare like 'Grand Theft Auto' languishes



The latest version of the blockbuster video game “Grand Theft Auto” may have stoked a worldwide buying frenzy, but the ultraviolent offering is likely to be a minnow in Japan’s vast gaming market.

Shoot-em-up video games from abroad often struggle to gain traction here, where fantasy-style games reign supreme and sell in the millions — even though many in the West have never heard of them. These include the hugely popular “Monster Hunter” franchise, which has sold 23 million copies and counting since its debut a decade ago.

“Most of them were sold in Japan even though we made an English version,” said a spokeswoman for game creator Capcom Co.

Problems in translating the language and cultural differences are among the reasons cited for the struggles of foreign game operators in Japan, a rift that was apparent as gamers flocked to the Tokyo Game Show last week. More than 600 games titles were on offer at the four-day extravaganza that wrapped up Sunday.

Though Japanese firms once dominated the global market with the likes of “Super Mario” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” they appear to be looking increasingly inward.

“The main trends of the video game market in Japan are divided into two categories: major worldwide successes like ‘Pokemon,’ ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Biohazard,’ and games that are specifically designed for core Japanese gamers,” said the Asia Trend Map institute, pointing to the “overwhelming (local) dominance of games made in Japan.”

A blockbuster offering based on the popular manga “Shonen Jump” reflects a common theme; Japanese video games are often centred around a well-known character in multiple media platforms, from manga and movies to music and TV series.

Namco Bandai’s “AKB 1/149 Renai Sosenkyo,” a popular dating simulation game built around the AKB48 brand, is the kind of title known to most at home but with little name familiarity abroad.

“The title isn’t suited to foreign markets,” said company spokesman Toshiaki Honda.

Even Sony Corp. is releasing its PlayStation 4 abroad before it hits store shelves at home — a first — with executives saying game titles expected to be popular in Japan won’t be ready in time.

Eiji Araki, senior official of mobile social game maker Gree Inc., said, “We’ve learned that characters and visuals favored in the United States are different from those in Japan.”

For some, the unique character of the domestic gaming market encapsulates the so-called Galapagos Syndrome, in which firms concentrate almost solely on Japanese consumers.

Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Samsung Electronic Co.’s Galaxy smartphones were a little slow to catch on here as many mobile carriers focused on homegrown flip-phone offerings.

While the iPhone is now selling well domestically, a ride on a Tokyo subway underscores another unique aspect of the nation’s gaming market — a love of handheld devices. Commuters on the city’s vast transportation network are frequently seen thumbing away on portable gaming devices to pass the time.

For one official at Tokyo-based Computer Entertainment Rating Organization, the love of fantasy and role-playing games in Japan’s low crime society stands in stark contrast to the brutal depictions of urban violence in “Grand Theft Auto.”

“Japanese consumers prefer family-use games to those with violent, anti-social or extreme expressions of sexuality,” the official said.

A report by Internet group GMO Cloud characterizes the difference as “self-escapism versus self-expression.”

Whether or not that’s true, “Grand Theft Auto” is undoubtedly violent, especially when compared with Nintendo Co.’s award-winning “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” in which players take on the role of a mayor running a rural community.

By contrast, past releases in the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise have included simulated sex with prostitutes and drunken driving, along with profanity-packed dialogue.

Carjacking, gambling and killing are the staples of a game in which players take on the role of a psychopathic killer in a fictional Los Angeles.

When “Grand Theft Auto IV” was released five years ago, it blew away video game and Hollywood records by making an unprecedented $500 million in the week after its release, and it shows few signs of slowing with the game’s fifth incarnation released a few days ago.

Hisakazu Hirabayashi of Tokyo-based consultancy firm InteractKK said he expects the game’s newest version to have relative success among Japanese consumers — at least “for a Western game.”

  • Ron NJ

    Re: AKB 1/149 Renai Sosenkyo: ““The title isn’t suited to foreign markets,” said company spokesman Toshiaki Honda.”
    I’m sorry, what? A game whose premise is formulating romantic relationships with members of a group who are by and large minors “isn’t suited to foreign markets”? Toshiaki Honda for the understatement of the century award, folks.

  • RiceDealer

    “Carjacking, gambling and killing are the staples of a game in which players take on the role of a psychopathic killer in a fictional Los Angeles.”

    Yes, and a dating sim about AKB48 is a game where players take on the role of a twisted pedophile where dating minors and engaging in statutory rape is the staple of the gameplay.

    What a dishonest discourse. AKB48 is leaps and bounds WORSE than anything GTA can throw at you, yet here we are trying to act self-righteous and superior about how Japanese gamers don’t go for that kind of violent nonsense. Oh, sure, Japanese games aren’t violent, but here they are peddling fantasies about statutory rape.

    And let’s clear something else up: GTA is a fantasy. No one is ever encouraged to go out and do the things presented in the game. AKB48, on the other hand, EXPLICITLY invites fans to come meet the girls, shake their hands, interact with them. The girls are banned from having boyfriends SPECIFICALLY so fans can feel like they “have a chance” with the girls.

    So, let’s compare: GTA, a game that allows you to play in a fantasy world where anything goes – fight, kick, punch, steal, screw – whatever you want! Just don’t do it in real life!

    AKB48 dating sims: hey, here’s a group of young, underaged girls. Enjoy playing a game about dating them, and feel free to fantasize about it when you’re done! Oh, and don’t forget to come and meet these girls in real life! We have an entire auditorium set up JUST FOR YOU! And remember: they’re SINGLE and WAITING FOR YOU!

    Wow. I never thought it would be possible to make GTA sound like the moral choice, but it clearly is when compared to ANYTHING made by AKB48.

  • KuchikiSentou

    I think the crux of this article is
    Self Escapism v Self Expression.
    West v East in true classical summation.

  • http://www.pureenterprise.com/ Dylan Robertson

    I was responsible for the GMO Cloud report, which we published in October 2012 and was largely ignored until this article. You can see it on SlideShare.net/gmocloud – see page 36. It has been quoted out of context in several articles recently. It was never referring to GTA or the other games mentioned in this article or by the commenters. It was just trying to make some broad generalizations, which is what market reports are for. No offense was intended and we welcome any criticisms and feedback.

  • RiceDealer

    Oh, and one more thing I think really needs to be mentioned about the gaming world: Japan’s most popular card game among children, Duel Masters, was created and designed entirely by an American company for the Japanese market.

    So, you know, it turns out Japanese kids LOVE American (card) games. Oh, and the people who made DM also make Magic: the Gathering, which has some very progressive presentations of gender and race and no extreme sexual imagery – all of which went out the window for the Japanese market when they made DM, a product aimed directly at boys and boys only. But, well, that doesn’t fit the narrative of “Japan=good; gaikoku=bad.”

    Because, see, if you compare MtG to a Japanese TCG, you’ll find that MtG comes out WAY on top of the gratuitous cartoon sexuality present in the Japanese TCG market. MtG is tame and mature and all-ages – whereas there are a few Japanese TCG’s that seem to be focused entirely on little girls in their panties. Hm. Again, though, this doesn’t fit the narrative, does it? Talking about that doesn’t make Japan look good.

    None of the children I live and work with have any idea that TCG’s in general, let alone Duel Masters in particular, is a 100% American product. Why should they? It doesn’t fit the narrative.

    Why don’t we focus on the really, truly great parts of Japan and stop pretending that their garbage doesn’t stink? This article is yet another example of someone taking Japan’s garbage and trying to convince us that it’s gold. I’ve seen Japan’s gold. AKB48 and Animal Crossing aren’t it. AKB48 is garbage, and Animal Crossing is asinine. GTA may be more violent than Animal Crossing, but at least GTA lets you think for yourself and make actual decisions.

  • Alberto Corral Diez

    i live in Spain and it´s really frustrating how videogames company don´t bring their cool games to Europe, or we have to wait more than six moths because they have to translate. maybe nintendo break the wall with pokemon X , Y launching worldwide the tittle. thats the path, we can´t wait six or one year to play the same game that the companies had launched in japan. we are customers like japanese .I love Monster hunter 4 why I have to wait ? that capcom finally say yes or not to sell the game in Europe one year later, don´t have enough money to hire translators?